With over 150 races worldwide, Ironman and Ironman 70.3 triathlons are the sport’s biggest, most popular events. Here are 11 reasons why they’re so special.

With more than four decades at the heart of triathlon, Ironman is the sport’s most recognisable and enduring name, inspiring tens of thousands of athletes to take part in Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races all around the world every year. Part of the fabric of triathlon, Ironman has honed the art of putting on spectacular races time after time and keeping athletes hungry for even more. There’s certainly something special about toeing the line at an M-dot event and here are 11 of our top reasons why.

1Worldwide locations

Ironman-branded events now take place in all corners of the world including races in the Middle-East such as Ironman 70.3 Dubai. (Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for Ironman)

Since Ironman got started in 1978, events have been sprouting up all over the world to create a truly global series of over 150 races. So, whether you fancy racing in South America, the Canary Isles, down under or the far east, Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events give you the chance to travel to new places you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise get the chance or motivation to visit. This also means that no matter the weather or season at home, you can pretty much always find a race somewhere warm – and a fine place to spend a holiday afterwards.

2The original long-course triathlon

Even in its early years, it was clear that Ironman was the start of something different and special. Athletes who would become legends of the sport – such as Mark Allen, Dave Scott and Paula Newby-Fraser – were just as enraptured by the prospect of completing the event as every athlete since who’s caught the Ironman bug.

Today, people who don’t even know what a triathlon is, fall under the spell of Ironman for its toughness, grandeur and ‘Anything is Possible’ mantra. That sort of magic isn’t something you get with every race – it’s a power Ironman has managed to bottle and replicate around the world and its strength to inspire shows no signs of waning. After all, how many other brands are so ingrained in the lives of their followers that people tattoo the logo on their skin.

3Biggest field, biggest atmosphere

Events such as Ironman Switzerland feature sections with crowds so deep and wild you’ll feel like you’re in a mountain stage of the Tour de France. (Photo: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for Ironman)

An Ironman-branded event can have in excess of 2,000 competitors, all sharing that same nervous excitement in the days leading up to the race and all fixed on the same goal of the finish line on race day. This concentration of athletic energy creates a uniquely electric atmosphere that can only be created by races of this scale.

It’s not just the racers though. With an influx of supporters bolstering local spectator numbers, Ironman events are famous for awesome support, with crowds even swarming the roads, Tour de France-style in places, to send chills down the spine and keep you pushing hard when your body has other ideas.

4World Championship qualification

Ironman World Championships
The Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii is a truly spectacular event that’s the dream of many triathletes. (Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images for Ironman)

Official Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events are the only route to earn qualification for Ironman World Championship events, whether at the spiritual home of triathlon in Kona, Hawaii for the full distance or at the 70.3 worlds, which rotate around different locations each year.

To earn your place, you have to be incredibly fast – sometimes even reaching the age-group podium isn’t enough to do it – or be lucky enough to get a roll-down slot. But the lure, the pure hope, of one day getting there is something that motivates athletes to return to an Ironman-branded event year after year. Plus, if your times don’t ever qualify you for Kona, you might be lucky enough to get a legacy slot thanks to your dedication to racing M-dot events.

5The Expo

Ironman expos are a rare opportunity to be tempted by triathlon-specific goodies you can’t get anywhere else. (Photo: Ironman)

We don’t know about you, but we’re suckers for event expos and Ironman races have some of the best. From T-shirts with your name printed as one of the thousands within the iconic M-dot logo to cookie cutters, sun vizors, casualwear and branded kit, there’s plenty to tempt you to part with your cash.

Many events will have a whole host of exhibitors including running shoe companies, wetsuit brands and bike sponsors as well as stands for sports nutrition, apparel and pretty much anything else triathlon-related you can think of. It’s a fine way to while away an afternoon before the race, while also keeping an eye on the competition milling around.

6Post-race food and after party

Somehow, the finish-line party seems to rejuvenate even the most tired legs, especially when the fireworks start. (Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for Ironman)

As if finishing an Ironman wasn’t tough enough in itself, once you’ve crossed the line, you’re then faced with the task of eating your own bodyweight in the finisher’s area! Here you’ll find a wide array of savoury and sweet food, drinks – often alcohol-free beer – and somewhere to sit and rest your weary legs, which is a blessed reward in itself.

As more finishers pack into the area, the vibe swings towards an atmosphere of revelry and indeed, many full Ironman races celebrate the 17-hour cut-off by switching to the event after-party – some, such as Ironman Austria, complete with fireworks and live music.

7Closed roads

Athletes racing with the roads to themselves during the bike leg at Ironman Frankfurt. (Photo: Joern Pollex/Getty Images for Ironman)

There are few things that feel more special during a triathlon than racing on closed roads. It might contribute to the race fee but knowing it’s just you and your fellow athletes sharing the highway really adds to the sense of occasion – as if you’re in a professional race all of your own. Of course, closed roads are also safer for all concerned and allow the event organisers to pick the best possible route without having to worry about pinch points with traffic, so everybody wins.

8Stacked aid stations

Triathlon media royalty, Bob Babbitt, often describes Ironman as a ‘catered workout’ and when you get a look at all the food on offer at the aid stations, it’s easy to see why. Not only is there likely to be a plethora of sports nutrition products including gels, energy drinks and electrolytes but a positive smorgasbord of salty snacks such as pretzels or tortilla chips, sweet treats or fruit portions. On top of that, there’s the caffeinated goodness of cola or Red Bull to help you refocus on your battle to the finish line.

9Volunteers

Volunteers are an integral part of the Ironman experience – without them, there would be no race. (Photo: Joern Pollex/Getty Images for Ironman)

Ironman events rely on thousands of volunteers, without whom the races just couldn’t be run. As adept at keeping up your mental energy as helping you replenish your physical reserves, this army of brightly-coloured super fans make all the difference on race day when you hit a dark patch and need cheering up or crave a cup of coke or a handful of ice to cool you down.

It’s a hard job – volunteers are up well before the race start and stick at their posts until the last athlete has passed, so giving them a word of thanks will boost their morale and yours too. If you’re travelling with friends or family, they can also register as volunteers for the day giving a totally different and unforgettable perspective to your Ironman journey.

10Racing with pros

Ironman events court some of the world’s best triathletes to take part in the pro field, with these supremely fast men and women racing on the very same course that you’ll tackle and at the same time too. You can’t say that of many sports.

Whether your level of tri geekery has reached a state where you know the pro start list inside out or not, no one can deny the thrill of seeing snippets of the professional race unfold – the pro’s zipping past on the bike at breakneck speed or overtaking on the run with unbelievable pace. It’s truly inspiring.

11The finish line

Traversing an Ironman finishing chute is a truly magical experience that stays with you for years to come. (Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for Ironman)

Even the thought of the Ironman finish line gives us goosebumps. This magical strip of red and black carpet, lined with cheering crowds packed 10 deeps on the grandstands, has the power to heal any pain you’ve been holding onto all day and transform it into pure emotion. If the tears of joy, grins of delight and roars of ecstasy don’t bring a lump to your throat, being called across the line with your name ringing over the PA system and the immortal words, ‘You are an Ironman!’ certainly will.